MBTA sheds new light on Park Street Station mural

It’s been there for decades. But with new lighting and a bit of cleanup, the underground artwork is shining like never before.

A train pulled into the station in front of the mural. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s been there for decades, just across the tracks of the Green Line’s outbound platform at Park Street Station.

But if you’ve ever stayed engrossed in your phone for too long while waiting for your train to pull up, it’s possible you’ve never given it a second glance.

These days, however, the 12-ton, 110-foot-long mixed-media mural is a lot easier to spot — and it’s been turning heads.

The colorful, sparkling tiles and intricate carvings that make up the multipaneled work of art, first installed in 1978, are enjoying a renewed presence, after the MBTA recently put in brighter lights at the underground station and polished off the dirt-caked mosaic.

“It’s really nice,” said Brookline resident Anna Nason, just before boarding a Green Line trolley that momentarily obscured the mural’s view. "The new lights make it really pop.”

A passenger passed in front of the mural. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Illuminating and cleaning the massive work by late artist Lilli Ann K. Rosenberg was part of a broader effort (even before the fears of spreading the coronavirus hit) to spruce up stations throughout the sprawling transit system, work that began last year when the T kicked off its aggressive “brightening” campaign.

“A lot of good things are happening inside the nation’s first subway station,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said of the ongoing work at Park Street, a busy hub that 20,000 people pass through each day.

According to a project description on the MBTA’s website, workers have been doing top-to-bottom cleaning and repainting, adding new way-finding signs and pulling down outdated ones, repairing the tiles and stairs — and, in the mural’s case, bringing new light to the treasured but sometimes overlooked piece.

“I didn’t even notice it was there until like two months ago," said Sean Foote, 23, of Bridgewater, as he stood across from the mural. “The lighting definitely has helped; you can see a lot more of the colors and everything.”

Despite having already been shined, he said it could stand "to be cleaned up” even more.

A multi-panel mosaic by sculptor Lilli Ann Killen Rosenberg installed in 1978 on an outbound Green Line platform at the MBTA Park Street Station. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The sizable artwork, made up of 16 panels that contain eight smaller squares, is called “Celebration of the Underground.” It pays homage to the country’s first subway tunnel and overall history of the city’s public transit.

Rosenberg, a prolific sculptor, muralist, and potter, whose detailed artwork marks many spots in and around Boston, finished the piece in the 1970s, before it was unveiled along the grimy, rust-colored walls above the Green Line train tracks. It was made in her Newton studio.

When it was installed — a task performed by an ironworks firm between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when trains weren’t running — the artist told a Globe reporter that she came up with the design plan two years prior.

“I didn’t know anyone at the MBTA nor anything about subways,” she said, “but the people at the T liked the idea and told me to go ahead.”

Rosenberg, who died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 86, once described the piece as “a mural to celebrate the underground and engage the passersby in a captivating experience during their wait below ground,” according to her obituary, which ran in the Globe that year.

She wanted her art out in the public “where people could appreciate and enjoy it,” her daughter, Claire Van der Zwan, said at the time of her mother’s death. “She wanted to reach all types of people.”

Although the mural has long been front-and-center at Track 1, just as you come down the steps from Boston Common and pass through the turnstiles, some have said over the years that it had been shrouded by the dim atmosphere inside the station, falling short of its original goal to grab eyes.

“I rarely take the C from Park Street, so it took me a while to notice it was even there, especially since it’s in a dark part of the track,” a transit art blogger wrote in 2012.

At least since January, that has changed. The hypnotic circles, the tiny turquoise and pink tiles that make up the clothing on the carved figures riding a train car, and the deep oranges and yellows and blues forming a panoramic view of the city all command attention.

Shiva Pedram, of Boston, was taking the Green Line for the first time ever on Wednesday. Before getting on a screeching trolley that emerged from the dark tunnel where the mural begins, she was caught by the artwork.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said. “It was the first thing I noticed.”

Passengers hopped off a train near the mural. Lane Turner/Globe Staff
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